4G services are finally coming to Chicago’s subways. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are collectively installing a $32.5 million LTE upgrade in the Chicago Transit Authority’s 22 miles of subway tunnels, allowing commuters to continue chatting, streaming and gaming when they go underground.
As a Chicagoan I know the frustration of losing your smartphone connection when your train car dips below ground level, but you non-Chicagoans may be asking yourselves “Chicago has subways?” Yes: While the name of the Chicago metro train system is the “L”, which is short for “elevated,” Chicago’s two main lines go underground for about 20 stops when they approach downtown.
That means for many L riders, the last 10 or 15 minutes of the commute becomes a wireless dead zone, forcing you to deal with the reality that you’re in a train packed wall-to-wall with other people. When the carriers complete the upgrade – targeted for the end of 2015 — we should be able to continue surfing to our hearts’ content.
[company]T-Mobile[/company], which is taking the lead on the project, will coordinate the construction of a distributed antenna system (DAS) throughout Chicago’s tunnels. Then all four of the operators will connect their networks to it. You can think of a DAS as a cell tower broken into its component parts. Instead of putting a cluster of antennas at the top of a mast, T-Mobile will install individual transmitters throughout the tunnels, which will connect back to a central location called a base station hotel somewhere in the depths of the city. The carriers will all install their network gear in that hotel.
This isn’t the first DAS to appear in Chicago’s subway. Allgon Telecom built a 2G network in Chicago’s subway a decade ago, but the voice-centric system barely worked then and it’s next to useless now. Hopefully, this long-needed upgrade will finally fix Chicago’s underground dead zone problem so we can return to the warm embrace of our smartphones at the end of our commutes. What else are we going to do? Talk to each other?